I accidentally bought a stallion in December. Not just any horse, he’s the kind of horse that little girls ride in their dreams at night. I wake up in the morning counting down the minutes before I can ride him again.
I am a student of dressage, and I train with close friends of more than a dozen years now, Kim and Yvonne Barteau of KYB Dressage. I met Kim and Yvonne in 2003 after working with a trainer for more than three years but never seeing the inside of a show ring or even knowing a single USDF test.
In the fall of 2003, I had purchased an Akhal-Teke stallion named Gigar, and by the beginning of the 2004 show season, I made my first salute to the judges in the box. In the beginning, Yvonne read tests for me, and I remember coming out of the ring after the first one feeling rather full of myself. Yvonne asked me, “What the heck was that? You never made it to X on your trot loops; you only went to the quarter line. They are going to whack you for that.” (At Training Four, the horse was required to touch the center line at X (center of the dressage ring) during the first trot loop.) I laughed and told her, “Well, you’re the trainer. How come he doesn’t know where X is?” I was a pretty poor student back then and managed to show up for my first show without ever reading a dressage test for myself.
I became a better student over the years. I now know where X is. Working with people who are excellent inures a feeling of trust and a motivation for excellence. In fact, I almost called this blog Blind Faith, except that it isn’t blind. It is a faith that evolves over time after hours and years of lessons in which you are pushed to the limit of your ability and kept safe at all times. It is not unusual for Yvonne to give me an instruction that is completely counter-intuitive to me and at the moment I feel a compelling need to grab onto the reins like a clutch monkey and cling for dear life, she tells me “donkey kick,” and when I do it, the horse drops onto the bit and gets ahead of the leg. It’s a special kind of fairy dust (or perhaps schizophrenia) that I now carry with me even when I am not in a lesson, and I can actually hear their voices in my head when I find trouble riding on my own.
In late 2004, I had just had a major surgery and was patched together like Humpty Dumpty. About two weeks after surgery, Yvonne persuaded me to try out a three and a half year old Friesian filly that she thought I should buy. The last thing I wanted was a young horse, and certainly not a fat, hairy Friesian. I still have Dona, who will be fourteen this year. In 2005, she was the USDF Region 4 Reserve Champion (Training Level AA), USDF All Breeds Award 2nd Place (Frieisan Horse Society, Training Level AA), and was ranked 18th place nationally for all breeds, USDF Adult Amateur Award. By 2006, she was 3rd in the country, all breeds at Training Level for the USDF Adult Amateur Award (median score of 72.308%); she won first place for the USDF All Breeds Awards for the Friesian Horse Society for both Training and First Level, and she placed at Regionals as well. In her spare time, she carried my eight year old daughter around like a basket of eggs and with her unfailing kindness, she taught her to ride. She is the Lassie of the horse world.
For the past several years, demands of my career have kept me out of the show ring. Last June, Yvonne sent me an email with a video of an amazing Andalusian stallion, which I did not watch at the time. In the fall, I was casually window shopping for a new show prospect and had ridden a different Andalusian stallion in a lesson with Yvonne. At her encouragement (and by “encouragement,” I mean insistence), she had me see and ride a mahogany bay stallion at another barn that she had worked with previously.
One thing I have learned over the last decade is that when Yvonne makes a strong recommendation, she is always right. She did, after all, write the book (literally) on the matchmaking of horses and riders, Ride the Right Horse. (If her passion were stocks instead of horses, we would all be billionaires.) And now I have my Marcos, who is the most talented horse I have ever ridden.
Once again, I find myself in the happy anticipation of show season. The twelve preceding years have taught me that if I put in the work, my greatest expectations will be fulfilled. And by great expectations, I do not mean Horse of the Year Awards or the other trappings of the show ring that flow from riding a well trained horse well. I mean this steady march toward progress in dressage – that exquisitely nuanced recipe of connection, balance, impulsion, and suppleness that is born out of an educated partnership forged with a horse.
Not all trainers are equal, and Kim and Yvonne are without equal.